In 2016, an estimated 21 million people (The ILO Global Estimate of Modern Slavery in 2017: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage) were exploited in appalling living and working conditions, despite the prohibition of slavery in 1926 and of human trafficking for labour exploitation in 2000.
For example: In 2008, Romanian nationals were recruited via newspaper adverts with job offers in Belgium of 8 euros an hour, 150 euros a month rent, and travel fees of 310 euros. Upon arrival, the workers were transported to construction sites, working for up to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week with no payment of wages. The workers were housed in overcrowded, damp, unsanitary living conditions, often with no electricity. Whilst this example from Belgium illustrates that exploitation continues to be a grave societal problem, without a clear understanding of the scope of the legal meaning it is not always easy for lawmakers to adopt a consistent approach when applying it to criminal cases.
The findings of research by dr. Amy Weatherburn, from the Fundamental Rights Research Centre at VUB’s Faculty of Law and Criminology, aims to change this. “The research explored the understanding of exploitation in criminal law, to propose a conceptualisation that can be used by lawmakers, judges and legal professionals to better tackle labour exploitation,” she says.
National legal orders predominantly tackle labour exploitation through criminalising human trafficking; however, the fact that these national crimes are based on an international definition that includes an open-ended list of forms of exploitation makes it difficult to ensure harmonisation and legal certainty about where decent work becomes exploitative and should be criminalised. The findings of Weatherburn’s comparative research into criminal cases in Belgium, England and Wales offers a unique insight into how the law is applied in practice and led to the development of a conceptualisation of exploitation as “Person A knowingly takes unfair advantage of person B’s position of vulnerability by means of the exercise of control showing a lack of respect for person B’s human dignity, in order to gain a benefit.” The proposed conceptualisation can be used as a tool to further clarify an area of law that is currently muddled by a wide variety of responses. “Recent calls for definitional clarity have been made by high-level actors within the EU and Council of Europe, and it is hoped that the timeliness of these research findings can positively contribute, influence and be echoed in the next steps in clarifying the upper and lower limits of labour exploitation in law.”
Examples of labour exploitation in Europe
The following three examples demonstrate the extent of the phenomenon in Europe:
- In 2012, 42 Bangladeshi undocumented migrants found work in the Greek Peloponnese picking strawberries. They were promised 22 euros a day, for 7 hours work with 3 euros per hour of overtime and 3 euros deducted for food. They worked 12 hours a day, under armed supervision, and lived in shacks made from cardboard, nylon and bamboo, with no sanitary facilities or running water. After not having been paid for more than a year, and after several unsuccessful strike actions; in April 2013, the migrant workers approached their employer demanding payment of their wages. One of the guards shot at the workers, injuring 21 of them.
- In 2015, two Polish nationals promised Polish workers a job in the UK. After having arranged their travel, accommodation, access to social security and a bank account, the workers were put to work, via a recruitment agency, in a warehouse of a well-known retailer in Derbyshire. The working conditions were “normal” as they worked 8-hour shifts and were paid their wages in full on a weekly basis. However, the exploiters had total control of their bank accounts, immediately withdrawing the money, giving the workers £90 a week.
- Romanian nationals were recruited via newspaper adverts with job offers of 8 euros an hour, 150 euros a month rent, and travel fees of 310 euros. Upon arrival in Belgium, the workers were transported by their exploiters to construction sites, working for up to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week with no payment of wages. The workers were housed by the exploiters in overcrowded, damp, unsanitary living conditions, often with no electricity.
Dr. Amy Weatherburn
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